kw: book reviews, fiction, humor, fantasy
Anybody got some old tapes of the Tonight show, when it was hosted by Johnny Carson? Say about 1974? Try playing them for a room full of high school or college kids, or even anyone under thirty. You'll hear things like "Watergate what?" and "Who's Ford?"
Did you ever wonder what made them roll in the aisles in Lincoln's day, or Jackson's? Chances are, for anyone who could read German, or could get a translated work, it was a book by ETA Hoffmann. Who was Hoffmann? I'd heard the phrase "Tales of Hoffmann", and recently learned it is the title of an 1881 opera based on his stories. He published numerous books from 1809 until his death in 1822, in the genres of fantasy and horror. The fantasies in particular were immensely popular, achingly humorous (so they say); they and his reviews of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven pretty much jump-started the Romantic movement of the 19th Century. You can learn more at this Wikipedia entry, and its links.
So what sort of person enjoys 200-year-old German humor? A 200-year-old German, I suppose. I obtained Hoffman's Katen Murr, the short title of The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper. The 1999 annotated translation by Anthea Bell is excellent. However, I made it through Volume 1 only, just over half the omnibus volume.
I knew I was in trouble when I determined that there are about 90 endnotes per section (Vols 1 & 2 have two sections each, and the proposed Vol 3 was not produced before Hoffmann's death). Fortunately, I read French, and can puzzle out enough Italian, Latin, and Spanish to get through the text without overmuch dependence on the notes. But the great mass of topical references just blew by me.
I can see the humor in the interleaved stories of the educated cat and the eccentric music-master (who is the protagonist of many a Hoffman book). But it is humor once removed; I understood, but I did not laugh much, not the way I do at a humorous fantasy by Piers Anthony or Harry Harrison.
The interleaving of two roughly similar stories, with (mostly) greatly different characters, may have heightened one's enjoyment in 1820, but I am a linear thinker when reading, and found myself skipping to the connecting piece, to complete a thought before turning to the alternate story. Maybe interleaving stories in shorter chunks would work for today's under-thirty folks, who get their TV fare that way.
Oh, well. I'm glad I read at least the first volume, but I turned with relief to an anthology by Joe Haldeman, which I'll probably review on the 28th, when I return from a trip.